-- Best stage of life for a hunter
Chloe Davidson, 7, gets in some range time with volunteer instructor Dub Morris before the youth hunt at Charles Herron's farm in Elmore County.
Photo Courtesy David Rainer
By David Rainer / Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Charles Herron wasn't looking for any special recognition a few years ago when he started sharing his love for the outdoors with young hunters in central Alabama.
Herron, who started out with a pulpwood truck and chainsaw 35 years ago, has done particularly well in the timber business in Alabama and through the years has assembled a spread teeming with deer and turkey in Elmore County. Every other weekend during gun deer season, Herron turns that property into a youth hunting paradise.
Although reluctant to publicize his youth hunts, he finally relented. "To me if it gets some other people doing it, then it's worth it," said Herron, who devotes his 2,500 acre property northeast of Montgomery to youth hunting only. The only adults allowed in the hunting stands on that property are parents and/or guides.
"I think a guy goes through stages of hunting," Herron said. "When you first start you're a shooter. You want to shoot any and everything just to get some kills. Then you graduate to the stage where you want to get your limit. You want to kill a limit of doves or ducks or whatever you go after. After you do that awhile, you become aware that you've killed some stuff and you want to kill some trophies now. So you let the smaller stuff walk and you start trophy hunting. You do that for a while and it's 'Awww, been there, done that.' So then you want to see how far away you can shoot one. You start shooting them long distance. You get tired of that, and you want to see how close you can shoot one, so you start bowhunting.
Herron checks on the food on the barbecue grill as a group of 21 young hunter, parents, mentors and volunteers get ready for the hunt. Photo Courtesy David Rainer
"I think, after you go through all that, you decide it's still fun, but you want to give something back. That's kind of where I am."
Herron depends on friends and acquaintances to recruit young people for his youth hunts on the diverse terrain that ranges from upland pines and hardwoods to the Tallapoosa River bottom.
The number of youth hunters varies from 18 to 22 kids, and Herron is looking for specific groups to fill the roster.
"We try to get about six first-timers who have maybe not even shot a gun," he said. "We have to work with them a little extra to get them ready on the shooting range. Then we try to get about six kids with some hunting experience that may have killed a deer or two. They don't require quite as much work. Then we try to get about six kids who have killed a few deer - maybe 13, 14, 15 years old - who don't require hardly any maintenance. We supervise them, but they can sit in a stand that might require a 150-yard shot instead of short range stand. That way we get new kids started, bring some along and then finish some off.
"This is not really a place for a 16-year-old kid who has killed 27 deer and some nice ones. It's really an entry level deal. I ask them not to shoot anything smaller than they did the last time. If they've never shot a doe, shoot a doe. If they killed a four-point, shoot a six-point or better this time. That's kind of my intention, to grow them up, get them interested and let the parents take them hunting."
After the recent hunt, Dalton Hamm, 11, shows off a beautiful eight-point he bagged that afternoon.
Photo Courtesy David Rainer
Herron started his youth hunting venture about six years ago with a handful of hunters. It has steadily grown as Herron and his band of volunteers fine tune the process.
"Every time we learn something, we tweak it a little bit," he said. "I try to make a novelty of it. I feed them before we get started. This hunt we had white-tailed deer, cubed antelope steak and mountain lion. Last week we had caribou, moose and deer. I try to mix it up. It's lots of fun and doesn't cost that much."
Herron gives the hunters, parents and mentors a gun safety talk after the meal. Then the hunters split into two groups. One heads to the gun range to shoot scoped .22-caliber rifles, while the other group tours Herron's museum, which is full of mounts from his hunting adventures around the world. Then the groups change venues to make sure everybody has some range time. After the hunt, Herron's philosophy is you can't have too many pictures so all the successful hunters have plenty of photos taken with their deer.
"I guess my target was to get the kids, but what I realized is there are so many 30- and 40-year-old parents out there who don't know where that meat in the grocery store comes from," Herron said. "If I invite the kid and the dad doesn't hunt, sometimes the mom will bring them. When the mom brings them out, I've got a bunch of good guides who will go with them. The mom will go just to be with the kid, and when the moms get back they're so excited. 'I saw a deer and a turkey; I want to go back.' Your target was the kid, but you got two for one. I also try to get some teachers in here so they can understand what it's all about. These kids are going to be the people voting in 8-10 years who elect the people who are going to decide what our hunting future is."
Herron, who was named the Alabama Wildlife Federation's Conservation Educator of the Year in 2011, realizes that not every youngster he takes hunting will adopt the endeavor, but he wants to make sure they at least get the exposure.
"I want the kids to go out and see for themselves," he said. "They may not take up hunting, but they will see that it's okay to hunt. I target the little girls, because if you get the girls interested, the boys are going to follow. You make a hunter out of a girl, and you've just about converted the whole family. And the little girls will outshoot the boys most of the time. When they shoot a deer, they're taking pictures and sending them to all their friends.
"It's not that difficult to do this. The volunteers do it because they want to. The food costs are not that much. There are lots of people who could do what I do, even if they don't do it but once or twice a year. And you don't have to do it this big. But try to get kids who haven't hunted. Those are the ones you want to reach. Like I said, it won't be too many years before they're voting and deciding our hunting future."
-- David Rainer